Craig Cathcart glided down the steep hill, mountain bike rattling beneath him. Reflected in his sunglasses were the jagged peaks of the Alps, drenched in sun. He rolled to a stop alongside a reoccupied Troy Deeney and turned to see what was taking his attention. The laughing captain was enjoying a helmeted Jerome Sinclair cautiously edging down the slope, lagging behind the rest of the group roaring through the lush hills of Tyrol.
I’m not embedded in Watford’s pre-season camp in Austria, not scouring the club’s YouTube for a heavily guarded glimpse of the players as they gear up for the new season, but, thanks to Instagram, I’m still privy to this meaningless but completely meaningful slice of life.
For me, like many football fans, the actual kicking of balls is a secondary part of following Watford. Sure, I like the sport well enough, but the reason I’m a Watford fan is because I love the club. I want to feel a part of it, and I want to know the people involved in it. This is why seasons where there is no connection between players and fans fall flat, and this is why I love Instagram Stories.
Footballers are fleeing Twitter. While several years ago Watford fans could fire up their app fairly safe in the knowledge that they would find some clothing-related banter between Troy Deeney and Ikechi Anya, two noted proponents of the form, these days tumbleweeds roll through the ghost town of footballer accounts, interrupted only by the odd muscle flexing emoji and Christian Kabasele noting that he has once again been mistaken for Abdoulaye Doucoure by a national media outlet.
This departure is happening far quicker than the general rate of Twitter deflation. The move away from traditional media and reporting has led to content aggregators and story-hungry journalists swarming athletes’ Twitter feeds like piranhas. The scrutiny of accounts is made all the worse by fans and, more pertinently, detractors and critics, seeing Twitter as a direct line to a player.
All it takes is one late-night swipe at the thousandth fan saying how crap you are because you didn’t score against Stoke, or even just because you don’t play for Liverpool or Arsenal (MenLikeFirmino say the cruelest things), and you’ve got a story on the Sun ripping your character — a slippery slope that rarely levels out on the harsh internet terrain.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take that. With players coming to the Premier League all over the globe, many speak poor or even no English. Being a predominantly verbal medium, Twitter provides ample opportunity for misinterpretation.
Instagram, and in particular its Stories function (seconds-long, annotatable photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours, for all the Boomers out there), allows players to control the conversation completely. It is a platform that emphasises one-way interaction, with responses tucked away if you don’t want to read them, and importantly is entirely visual. A picture tells a thousand words, and bridges all language barriers.
Richarlison, as evidenced by his work on Watford’s YouTube channel, can’t speak a word of English, and something tells me that Roberto Pereyra, two years in, has not been giving learning the language his fullest attention, but I know that the former is quite good at FIFA, has a bare but well-manicured back garden in Radlett and enjoys dancing in is vest, while the latter always wears his shorts like that, likes to listen to rubbish music on his drive in from North London and loves to play around with his son.
Isaac Success, exiled last year after struggling with fitness and attitude in his first season at Watford, has progressed from posting solely pouting selfies and singalongs to charting his work to get fit with workout videos, motivational posts and only the occasional pouting selfie and singalong. I’m sold.
None of these are important character traits, they provide only the slightest glimpse of the personal lives of people who have no obligation to let me into their world. But I’m a football fan — I want to like these guys, my bar for personality is low. I don’t need to know how they vote or what they think about climate change. Only Sebastian Prodl, by a long way the coolest man to ever turn out for Watford, has ever threatened to get political with some satirical posts during a party at the Austrian Embassy.
These snapshots into the lives of celebrities aren’t curated by a management team (of course, there are exceptions to the rule). Saturday evenings will see Twitter flooded with players’ praise of fans and promises to ‘go again’ copy and pasted right out of a text from a handler — sometimes very badly — but Instagram is a journey straight to a player’s soul.
Words can be manufactured, pored over to fulfil a corporate purpose, and just because they pop up on your phone next to a headshot of your favourite player doesn’t mean it’s him talking to you. Videos are harder to fake. Two players hanging out, enjoying a game of table tennis or a barbecue doesn’t perhaps hit the defined marks of a club’s PR strategy, but it conveys an authenticity that other platforms just can’t deliver.
What, for example, do Middlesbrough fans want to see more: a stuffy interview with Britt Assombalonga saying that he’s buzzing to get going, that there’s a great vibe around the training ground and that he’s in better shape than he’s ever beezzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, or a series of candid clips showing the touching relationship between him and his strike partner Patrick Bamford, based on petty vandalism of cars, the stealing of clothes and other schoolboy banter?
I expect pros to say they’re ready to play football — it is literally the one line in their job description — but to know that they actually enjoy being in the company of teammates and have good relationships outside of work would do much more for my anticipation of the new season. It’s why I’m delighted to see Andre Gray among the crowd for Troy Deeney’s latest bottle-popping fest, right next to the big white guy with the overlarge chain. And why it still pleases me to see Rene Gilmartin, Will Hoskins and Sean Murray pop up in Lloyd Doyley’s life, all those years after our capitalist sport brought them all together.
A further boon to the security of Stoires is that footballers don’t need to worry about Instagram posts coming back to haunt them. Sure, they can be screenshotted and captured if you really care enough, but by-and-large players don’t need to worry too much about posts from the past coming back to haunt them. Trump has proven that there is always a Tweet that can be used against you, if he’d stuck his racist, bullying, inane bollocks on Insta only his closest fans would notice when he said the complete opposite the next month, and they don’t seem to care about anything.
Look at this article, I love to hyperlink, but I can’t do it for any of the examples I’ve mentioned above. Why? Because none of them exist any more. That bike ride through the hills of Austria exists only in our memory, and yes, our hearts.
There’s no built-in way to retweet an Instagram Story, these things can only go viral by actual proper word-of-mouth rather than a mere click of a button. Of course, this will change as Instagram, in the time-honoured fashion of social media platforms, eats itself and its unique selling point (as unique as a feature shamelessly ripped off from another company can be) in the search for more users, but for now Stories is the safe haven for the isolated professional footballer, an oasis in the snake-filled desert of social media.